The cable industry has done a remarkable job building out its networks, offering consumers a service that lets them watch hi-definition television and download Web content at blazing speeds. But as Apple (AAPL) and the iPhone taught the mobile phone industry, hardware isn’t everything.
Software — especially the interface that your customers interact with — is arguably more important. That’s where cable giants like Comcast (CMCSA) and Time Warner Cable (TWC) are weak. And potential rivals, such as Apple, Hulu, and Boxee, are strong.
We are surprised by how lousy today’s set-top box software is. The user interface has barely changed in 10 years. Searching through programs on hundreds of channels (and various on-demand listings) requires an immense amount of patience or muscle memory. And the set-top box shows no signs that it’s connected to the same pipe as the Internet.
What needs to happen?
- A much better user interface all-around. Clearer and simpler, especially menus.
- Browsing shows shouldn’t just be a linear channel guide, but a real search experience, that’s as visual as text-based.
- Get inspired by the iPhone and the Nintendo Wii — not an old TV Guide magazine. Apps, widgets, motion-sensitive remotes, whatever.
- Use the Internet more. Pull in reviews from Rotten Tomatoes, Netflix, and Amazon.
- Let subscribers send out the shows they’re watching on Twitter. Let us watch what our Facebook friends are watching.
- Figure out a way to get every Web video ever on the cable box via On Demand. We shouldn’t have to boot up our laptop if we want to watch YouTube, MTV music videos, or our favourite video podcast.
What might make this a more realistic reality? Tru2Way, a cable technology the companies will talk plenty about at their annual conference in Washington D.C. this week.
What is it? Tru2Way — which Comcast CEO Brian Roberts wooed everyone with at CES last year — is supposed to let people access cable programming without a cable-supplied set-top box. This means you could plug your cable cord directly into a Panasonic Tru2Way TV, getting access to all the channels, On Demand, movie rentals, etc. Or it could plug into a Tru2Way-ready Blu-ray player, Apple TV, TiVo, Xbox, whatever.
This, in theory, means that the cable companies themselves could sit back while someone like Apple, Google, or Microsoft figures out the software stuff, building a TV gadget with a really awesome user interface that hooks into Internet services, etc. Then Comcast could buy a bunch and lease them out, or just let customers buy their own. But there’s no guarantee any of that will ever happen. So the cable companies themselves actually need to think about software, too.
Why bother? It’s not like the cable companies are in grave danger of losing many of their customers in the next few years. They still have the benefit of owning their own dedicated pipe, having set-top boxes in tens of millions of living rooms, and having the best content, live — which Internet-based rivals don’t.
For example, Apple and Netflix (NFLX) offer some movies and TV shows online, but selection is limited and nothing is live. Free Internet video services like Hulu and YouTube are growing, but still are designed mostly for watching in short bursts on a PC. And anyway, TV networks are even starting to shy away from throwing everything online for free, opting to work closer with the cable companies, which — unlike Internet advertising — actually generate revenue.
But eventually, it’s possible that most people won’t need to pay a cable company $80 per month to get a solid entertainment experience. We — admittedly, not TV junkies — cut the cord last year, any many of our friends have, too. It’s possible that through iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, TV.com, and services like Major League Baseball’s MLB.TV, we’ll get enough stuff to watch. And with excellent video browsing software like Boxee to put it all together, the cable companies could actually face a real challenge.
That’s why we hope someone at the cable conference in D.C. this week — whether in a keynote or somewhere in a corner — is talking seriously about software.
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